‘There is No Warrant to Israel ‘Genocide’ Claim’

A Jerusalem Post Op-Ed written by the ethicist Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn (April 27) persuasively dispels the slanderous charge of “genocide” against the State of Israel in its war against Hamas (see Op-Ed below). Dr. Korn notes that Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), a Polish Jewish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” and who campaigned for the establishment of the UN Genocide Convention in 1951, described “genocide” as a particularly heinous crime distinguishable from all other war crimes. Lemkin defined genocide as “the intent to destroy a human group as such, directed at individuals only because they belong to that group.” Encyclopedia Britannica is more specific and defines “genocide” as “the deliberate systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race.”

The key requirement in determining whether genocide has been committed is a nation at war’s “deliberate intent” to murder a group of people in whole or in part. Consequently, the charge of “genocide” leveled in The Hague by South Africa against the State of Israel and presently under consideration in The Hague does not apply because the war Israel is waging is against Hamas and is NOT against the Palestinian people, though they are the ones who are suffering.

Hamas is a terrorist military organization that seeks the destruction of the State of Israel and the murder of all Israelis and Jews. That Israel was called to answer the charge of genocide and that this unique charge has been repeated so cavalierly by many contemporary American college protesters, Palestinian resistance groups and the media does not make it so. That’s not to say that the death of any civilian is a tragedy. It is, and in this just war thrust upon Israel after Hamas’ brutal attack against thousands of innocent Israeli civilians on October 7, the resulting death of innocent Palestinians is an awful tragedy.

No nation, however, would stand by and not respond militarily to Hamas’ attack. Hamas leadership has been clear about its intent in this war; to draw Israel out to attack Gaza and cause as much civilian death and injury as possible, and then to disseminate the images of destruction and death day after day, week after week and month after month in its de-legitimization campaign against the State of Israel. Hamas’ military and political leadership promised to continue attacking Israel as it did on October 7 over and over again.

To the charge of genocide, from the beginning of this war, it needs to be recognized that Israel sent hundreds of thousands of text messages, robocalls, and leaflets throughout Gaza to warn Palestinian civilians to leave specific targets that Israeli intelligence concluded were sites occupied by Hamas commanders and fighters, military strong-holds, missile sites, and weapons depots. Hamas had embedded itself everywhere above ground in homes, apartment buildings, community centers, schools, mosques, and hospitals, and below ground in its 400 miles of tunnels. Many thousands of Palestinians, however, did not leave those targets for a variety of reasons. Some understandably did not want to leave their homes. Others were threatened by Hamas if they tried to leave and were shot at if they did. Hamas wanted Palestinians to become the victims of Israeli bombing. The visuals of the destruction are mind-numbing and terrifying, and that is exactly what Hamas wanted the world to see. One Hamas commander said in an interview that Hamas would be happy if even 100,000 Palestinian civilians die in this war.

Yes, Israel likely has made mistakes, and some targeting may have crossed red lines resulting in the death of innocent civilians. I have questioned the massive use of 2000-pound “dumb bombs” that have destroyed entire apartment buildings with the intent to take out Hamas commanders and deeply embedded tunnels beneath the buildings because of the resulting civilian deaths. Though it is ghoulish to talk about the numbers of casualties, Dr. Korn does so by comparison in his Op-Ed below. Israel’s record, even using Hamas statistics, is far better in its civilian-Hamas death ratio than in any war in the 20th and 21st centuries by any other nation in the world. No one really knows, by the way, how many civilians have been killed and injured because Hamas’ figures are all part of its de-legitimization campaign against Israel. Israel estimates that between 13,000 and 14,000 Hamas fighters have been killed.

Those protesting Israel’s war against Hamas on college campuses who proclaim “We are Hamas” and “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea” are wittingly or unwittingly calling for the destruction of Israel. They may know what they are saying, and if so, their morality is to be condemned as genocidal by definition. If they don’t know what they are saying, or what these slogans really mean, or if they deny and/or refuse to acknowledge what Hamas did to Israeli civilians on October 7, or if they refuse to acknowledge Hamas’ history of reactionary and repressive policies towards its own people (Hamas’ first act after its violent coup de ’etat against the Palestinian Authority in 2007 in Gaza was to march PA leaders to the top floors of the highest buildings and throw them to their deaths), or they don’t realize that Hamas executes LGBTQ individuals and women who resist Hamas’ authority, they ought to study the real history of the Middle East conflict and ask themselves who is really on the right side of history in this war.

I understand well as a Jew, a Zionist and a humanitarian the moral position of those who are against all wars. I struggled during the Vietnam War about whether I was a pacifist or not because I was so against American’s involvement in that war and was of draft age. I decided that since I would have fought against the Nazis in World War II and on the side of Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars, I was not a pacifist, though throughout my adult life I have been a peace activist especially between Israel and the Palestinian people. I respect those who on principle are opposed to all wars, and I especially respect the peace-makers. When this war ends, I hope that Israel and the Palestinians will find a pathway to resolve their conflict for the sake of both peoples’ security, independence and dignity. Hamas and its extremist Islamic allies (e.g. Iran, Hezbollah, etc.), however, are not legitimate partners to peace as they are maximalist and uncompromising terror organizations with the clearly articulated intent to destroy the State of Israel, to murder every Israeli and every Jew on its way to establishing an extremist Muslim caliphate over all of Palestine “from the river to the sea.”

It is one thing for college and university students to want this war to end, who yearn for the killing to stop, for the hostages to be returned to their families, and to want justice for the Palestinian people and a Palestinian state on part of historic Palestine – I want all of that too – but it is another thing to side with Hamas and Islamic extremists who want the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews and then in ignorance or with hubris charge Israel with genocide.

Though I believe in the right of students to peacefully demonstrate on college and university campuses on behalf of moral and just issues as an expression of their American First Amendment rights, I believe that there is a tremendous lack of understanding and knowledge about Hamas and the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amongst many of those currently demonstrating against this war.

I have written since the 100th day that Israel should sue for peace and get back all its hostages as soon as possible, to stop the fighting to avoid more death, injury and destruction to Gazan civilian life and to the lives of young Israeli soldiers, and to pour massive amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza. Thankfully, due to President Biden’s strong pressure on PM Netanyahu, approximately 350 trucks filled with food, water, and medical supplies are now coming into Gaza daily over newly opened crossings from Israel into Gaza and the US humanitarian pier is about to be completed and operating.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and many Israeli army and intelligence experts have said that Israel’s continuing the war to root out Hamas in Rafah is NOT worth the cost in human life, and that Israel should stop the fighting now, declare victory and sue for peace and the return of the hostages. Those are all positions worthy of college and university students.

I hope that reasonable students will pause from the demonstrations and study seriously the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both sides, step away from those demonstrators who call for the destruction of the State of Israel, and refuse to be ensnared by their maximalist anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric that charges Israel with the slander of genocide. (See my last blog “Confronting Antisemitism on College Campuses” in which I described what antisemitism is and isn’t, and what it means to be anti-Zionist and anti-Israel).

Here is Dr. Korn’s Op-Ed

“Since October 7, ‘genocide’ has rolled effortlessly off our tongues. To Israelis, Hamas’s murder, rape, and kidnapping of more than 1,400 people prove that Hamas is committed to its goals of making Palestine Judenrein through violent jihad and exterminating Jews.

To many on campus, social media, and in the partisan halls of the United Nations, Israel’s response to Hamas’s orgy of death is self-evident genocide. This rhetoric is awash in certainty, even though factual analyses yield little evidence of actual genocide.

Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” after reflecting on the mass slaughter of civilians in World War II. He understood genocide as a particularly heinous crime distinguishable from other war crimes, defining it as “the intent to destroy a human group as such, directed at individuals only because they belong to that group.”

Encyclopedia Britannica currently defines genocide as “the deliberate systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race.”

In 1951, the crime of genocide gained legal force when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was ratified by more than 130 countries.

What constitutes genocide?

Mass killing by itself does not constitute genocide, and World Wars I and II demonstrate the distinction. The Carnegie Institute estimates the number of World War I war-related deaths at 16-17 million, yet only the Ottoman murders of Armenians (1-1.5 million), Assyrians (750,000), and ethnic Greeks (348,000) were genocidal. World War II was far more lethal.

Estimates run from 70 to 85 million people killed, but deaths from systematic group extermination comprised but a small fraction of these: Jews (5.9 million), ethnic Slavs (2-2.5 million), Roma (250,000), Freemasons (80,000-200,000), disabled persons (250,000-300,000), and homosexuals (10,000-15,000). Thus, only 16% of World War I and 10-13% of World War II deaths were the result of genocide.

Many point to the large number of deaths in Gaza as proof of Israeli genocide. As of April 6, the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health claimed that 33,137 Gazans had been killed in the war, while Israel maintains that more than 13,000 of those deaths were Hamas combatants. If we accept these unconfirmed figures, approximately 20,000 Gazan civilians have died.

To determine whether these deaths constitute genocide, compare the Gaza war to other modern wars:

The percentages of Gazans killed (1.52%) and civilians killed out of the total population (0.92%) are all dramatically lower than their corresponding categories in other major wars. During World War I, 3.8% of all Russians died, while 8.57% of its civilians were killed. In World War II, 6.1% of German citizens died and 1.13% of German civilians were killed, while 10.5% of all Russians and 4.1% of Russian civilians were killed. In the Korean War, 12-15% of North Koreans were killed, while 10.2% of North Korean civilians died.

None of those campaigns were categorized as genocide since they reflect only the lethal nature of these wars. If those vastly more lethal campaigns were not genocide, it is difficult to see how the Israeli campaign in Gaza, with its immensely lower percentages of population and civilians killed, could qualify as genocide.

We can also analyze how 1.52% of Gazans killed compares to the corresponding percentages of the actual genocides against the Armenians in World War I (80%), the Jews (67%) and Roma (25-33%) in World War II, and the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 (85%).

The percentage of Gazans killed relative to the group population is at least 15 times lower than the percentages of the populations killed in the above genocides. The discrepancy is even greater if we consider all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, over which Israel has substantial military control. In that case, the percentage of Palestinian people killed (0.66%) is more than 39 times lower than the percentages killed in any of the genocides. Again, the results of the Israeli campaign bear no statistical similarities to actual genocides.

Another important indicator of genocide is the ratio of civilian casualties to enemy combatant deaths. If the intent is the destruction of a group, qua group, then civilians will represent a high casualty ratio relative to combatants. Conversely, a low ratio of civilian-to-combatant deaths augurs for general lethality, not genocide.

In the non-genocidal campaigns of World War II, the civilian-to-combatant death ratio was approximately 2:1; in the Korean War, it was 3:1; in the Persian Gulf War, it was 9:1; and in the Iraq War, it was 2:1. In the present Gaza war, it is 20,000/13,000 or 1.54:1.The low 1.54:1 Gaza ratio is notable because the war is being fought in dense urban areas where civilians have little protection, while Hamas fighters are protected in underground tunnels.

Moreover, Hamas has positioned its military assets in and under schools, hospitals, and residential buildings.

The Gaza fighting is comparable to the 2016-2017 international campaign against ISIS in Mosul, which was also fought in dense urban areas. The Mosul civilian-to-combatant death ratio was 9:1, as is the UN’s estimated ratio for urban warfare, so the civilian-to-combatant death ratio in Gaza is approximately six times lower than that of standard urban warfare.

In sum, the Gaza deaths resemble the pattern of general warfare and are manifestly dissimilar to instances of actual genocide. There is no statistical warrant to justify the claim that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

No person who values life can remain insensitive to the immense tragedy in Gaza. William Tecumseh Sherman was correct: War is hell. However, lethal war by itself is not genocide. Unfortunately, fact-based analyses will not stop many from uncritically insisting that genocide is occurring in Gaza.

Emotional recoil easily overcomes careful thinking. More pointedly, there is great political value for some in describing Israel’s actions as genocide: it condemns Israel of the most heinous of crimes, thereby strengthening the radical argument to dismantle the Jewish state.

THERE ARE also moral and historical consequences to this error. As the false claim goes viral, genocide becomes conflated with the general hellishness of war and loses its unique descriptive and prescriptive meaning.

If the war in Gaza constitutes genocide, then so do World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and all conflicts with horrific lethality.

This logic’s trajectory denies legitimacy to any middle ground between peace and genocide, rejecting any moral position between pacifism and all-out conflict unbridled by moral rules.

The Nazi extermination campaigns against Jews, Roma, ethnic Slavs, and homosexuals, qua peoples, become no worse than any bloody war.

Should this occur, genocide as a distinctive concept of extreme evil will have died, as will our conviction to prevent its recurrence. “Never Again” will become “Again” in history, perhaps in our lifetime.”

Dr. Eugene Korn is an ethicist living in Jerusalem.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.
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